When we talk about (or argue over) gender, sexuality, mental health, and various other issues both on the internet, and in our daily lives, we often forget how our language can be both intentionally or unintentionally damaging to people who may have faced these issues more intimately. In the context of this, navigating one’s lived existence as someone who has experienced violence or emotional trauma becomes extremely difficult. That, coupled with how the internet gives one free reign to post any kind of content without any filter or respect for one’s private boundaries, makes it even more of a challenge for a survivor of trauma to get by.
While we may not be able to sensitize or narrow down both real world and online content in such cases, one of the few ways in which things could be made at least a little easier is by providing trigger warnings.
A Trigger warning is any kind of verbal or written note which prefaces possibly traumatic content. They are meant to warn the audience that said content may have a strong potential to trigger (or cause) a negative emotional response, or bring upon unpleasant memories of a traumatic experience. Though they are mostly used online (in social media or various social justice spaces), they are sometimes (and ideally should be) also used in daily conversations. A trigger warning is usually denoted by a TW or a CW (content warning), and can span a lot of different ‘triggering’ experiences (like drug abuse, mental health issues, eating disorders, and so on). For survivors of trauma, a trigger warning can go a long way in helping them avoid content that may cause both emotional and physical post-traumatic distress, and hence, for us to dismiss or ridicule trigger warnings can ultimately become an unintentional act of violence.
Last month, University of Chicago clearly stated in a letter addressing freshmen that it would “not support so-called ‘trigger warnings’ ” to alert students of upcoming discussions or speakers that they might find offensive. But this was just one such instance. In so many universities, workplaces and other real-life situations, trigger warnings aren’t provided or even taken seriously. In fact, trigger warnings are often berated on the internet (especially among MRAs or those with conservative leanings) as being ‘over-sensitive’ or as some ‘skewed idea of social justice’ – so much so that the word ‘triggered’ has become an internet meme with harmful connotations.
The denial to accept or use trigger warnings comes from an extreme position of privilege, where one refuses to acknowledge the need for them because they themselves have never experienced or witnessed such a situation. Hence, to make trigger warnings more common, one needs to recognize and challenge this privilege. As a cisgender person, I might not know what kind of trauma a trans woman might face in being harassed or discriminated against, but that does not mean that I cannot be respectful of their post-traumatic needs, and provide them with warnings whenever any discussion veers towards something that make them uncomfortable.
But beyond privilege, the most important thing perhaps is to talk about the very issues of surrounding the causes of trauma more. There is a deep-seated need to understand how such violence affects different people differently, and how it can have adverse effects on one’s mental health – and that can only be done once we break our silence surrounding these issues. Only once we acknowledge how traumatic certain situations can be, we can acknowledge how important a trigger warning is.
We live in an ableist, patriarchal world where experiences surrounding sexual assault, or a mental or physical disability becomes cause for further oppression rather than empathy and compassion.
Just like it’s natural for the body to need healing after physical violence, it’s also natural for someone’s mind to need healing after something as traumatic as sexual violence. That’s why a diagnosis like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) exists – not because something’s “wrong” with struggling with the aftermath of trauma, but because trauma often has a negative impact on mental health; and a trigger warning becomes essential in dealing with that trauma. In our society, any amount of mental trauma (especially those caused as a result of surviving violence) is viewed as some kind of weakness or dishonour, because discussions of rape or assault themselves are so deeply stigmatized or silenced.
Hence, to disregard a trigger warning, to treat it as a joke or punchline against ‘social justice warriors’ means to disrespect the valid personal experiences of a survivor, and in a way, put the onus of the trauma on the survivor itself, which is a skewed expression of victim blaming yet again.
We as a society need to broaden our understanding of the emotional needs of trauma survivors, and evolve better ways of responding to and dealing with the resulting violence and trauma. A trigger warning might not completely stop a survivor from experiencing emotional and physical difficulties, but it goes a long way to help in the recovery and healing process. Hence, we need to use them more and more often.